WHEN THE Netstraded Jason Kidd to the Mavericks for Devin Harris last February, they knewthey were getting a younger (by 10 years) and less expensive (by $13.6 millionthis year) point guard whose game already included aggressive defense and alightning first step. What they didn't expect, however, is that Harris wouldquickly become one of the league's best backcourt scorers and join Chris Pauland Deron Williams in discussions of the top young playmakers.
That Harris hasimproved isn't surprising. Since he was taken fifth in the 2004 draft out ofWisconsin, his numbers have ticked up each year, to 14.8 points and 5.8 assistsper game in 2007--08. This season, though, the 25-year-old Harris has taken aquantum leap: Through Sunday he was averaging 25.3 points on 48.7% shooting and6.4 assists—and making the Kidd deal look like a heist. "The offense we runis not your typical NBA offense," Harris says. "But it's the perfectoffense for me."
In New Jersey'snew dribble-drive system, Harris is encouraged to call his own number: As soonas he brings the ball across half-court he looks to take his man off thedribble. The goal is to use the 6'3" Harris's superior speed to get a layupor to create an open look for a teammate off a collapsing defense. By stackingthe floor with big men who can step outside (Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez, RyanAnderson), the Nets produce huge gaps for Harris to exploit. "I'm in attackmode at all times," he says. "Our offense is predicated on mypenetration."
Putting the ballin Harris's hands—something that would not have happened had he stayed inDallas, where Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard are options A and B—has been a wildsuccess. On Sunday, Harris exploded for a career-high 47 points, abusing SteveNash and Grant Hill, in a 117--109 victory over the Suns. That came on theheels of torching Williams last Saturday for 34 in a 105--88 win at Utah.(Harris has now reached 30 points six times this season, after having neverscored 30 before.) And on Nov. 26 Harris beat the Kings 116--114 on a pull-upwith 12 seconds left in overtime.
December 8, 2008
At week's end theNets were a surprising 9--7 and fifth in the league in scoring (101.9 pointsper game), with Harris and Vince Carter (23.8) forming the NBA's mostproductive backcourt. And with his mandate to attack the rim, Harris has beensecond only to Magic center Dwight Howard at getting to the foul line (11.8attempts per game at week's end) and the best—by far—at making those tripscount (9.7 makes per game).
Harris's presentsuccess recalls his college days, when he started every game for three yearsand broke the school's single-season scoring record as a junior. "I alwaystold him, 'Go rim-to-rim if you can,'" says Badgers coach Bo Ryan."There weren't too many guys Devin couldn't beat off the bounce."Ryan's confidence in Harris is shared by New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank, whohas given Harris as much responsibility as he gave to Kidd. "I don't wanthim to look to me if a play goes wrong," says Frank. "He has to moveright on to the next play because the other four guys on the floor are lookingat him."
The relationshipbetween player and coach is crucial for the long-term success of the franchise.Frank, in his sixth season with the Nets, has the full support of the team'sfront office, while Harris is in the first year of a five-year, $42 millionextension he signed in September 2007. Both men figure to be building blocksfor the Nets as they (eventually) move to Brooklyn. "Coach wants me to takeownership of the team," says Harris. "I think I have."
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An Eastern Conference assistant on 6'8" WilsonChandler, a second-year Knicks forward who was averaging 14.9 points and 5.9rebounds as a starter after getting into only 35 games last season:
"If you saw him play in the summer league, youwould have said, 'Wow, has this guy improved.' The biggest change is hisoutside shot: He has increased his range so much that you have to defend himbeyond the three-point line. His ball handling is better too, but it couldstand improvement. We're talking about the perfect Mike D'Antoni player—atweener like Robert Horry, who can swing between forward positions, and guyslike that are invaluable. I hope [recent acquisitions] Al Harrington and TimThomas don't cut into his minutes, because he could turn into a really goodplayer."